Compassion, disability & mindfulness: convergence on the road to happiness

Last weekend, the inimitable Sharon Salzberg led a 2 day retreat on Compassion; I have long been her 'distance learning student', courtesy of audiobooks, dharma podcasts and suchlike, but these can never replicate the dynamic and interactive nature of a retreat.

Sharon's teaching is universal. No dogma or doctrine. Indeed, it is firmly rooted in Buddhist philosophy and psychology, but it is neither religious nor secular. She delivers the dharma in plain language without losing its essence. Not an easy task.

With a loving heart, an open mind and a cheeky sense of humour, she brings the wisdom of her experiences into her teachings; instead of feeling as if you are being taught to, or even worse preached at, you feel like you are walking alongside her as she traverses her spiritual path. It's such a subtle nuance that I'm afraid my words don't do it justice. I guess that, like life, its all in the experience.

As the subject of the retreat was Compassion, I could not miss the irony when there was no offer of assistance as I crashed and banged my cane around the ladies loo trying to find a cubicle, or when another participant accidentally kicked my cane without saying a word. I was lucky to have been accompanied by the lovely Nick Smith, who was equally surprised. What we both felt amidst the collective consciousness was dis-ease, pain and struggle and with Nick's near 20/20 vision, he observed the demography of the participants; at a guess, it was 80% female and 99% middle class. Despair was everywhere and the absence of peace and happiness permeated the room. This made sense of the action and inaction around my impairment, since compassion for others cannot be realised without compassion for oneself.

The questions during the Q&A sessions were indicative of the overall state of affairs. It was most certainly compassion that was required, but it was absolutes that were sought and, as Woody Allen puts it, "Nothing is certain but death and taxes". Meditation isn't therapy. It doesn't solve your problems. It has no rules, just guidance. It is up to the individual to find their way home to themselves. James Joyce's poignant quip from Dubliners kept on popping into my head - “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body” - falling into the 'Sad but true' category. Sigh.

With mindfulness and its associated meditation practice all the rage these days, the practice that Sharon teaches - Metta in the Pali and its English translation-ish Lovingkindness - has somehow been omitted; in this meditators opinion, for mindfulness to be adopted in the West as is intended Lovingkindness, or Compassion as the Dalai Lama refers to it, is an essential component.

Mindfulness gives us the space to be ourselves and to experience life as it unfolds, but if we do not have compassion for ourselves and others, then what we are experiencing will be spiritual emptiness. We will not find peace or happiness, nor will we be able to help others find them. If we are going to heal this broken world of ours, then mindfulness is the road and compassion the vehicle.

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